Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A song begins, sounding clean and clubby, riding some version of the rolling “Dem Bow” rhythm that animates so much modern Caribbean dance music, from dancehall to soca to reggaeton. Maybe it’s bare-bones and bass-heavy, or maybe it has some dreamy keyboard chords cribbed from house music or post-Drake American pop. If it’s the former, the vocalist is probably a toasting Jamaican deejay; the latter, maybe an auto-tuned rapper or a pleasantly anonymous European. Some sort of pre-chorus starts, and the island rhythms drop out, replaced by a sharp and insistent pulse on handclaps or a kick drum. The tension quickly rises. Just as you’re sure that something’s gotta give, the song opens back up. You’re met with a new noise that bears a vague and uncanny relationship to a horn section or a human voice, but sounds more like the mating call of an alien species. It’s the greatest thing you’ve ever heard, or the stupidest, or both. You’re listening, of course, to Major Lazer.
It feels like everything to come from Diplo’s longstanding dancehall-EDM project lately follows some variation on this formula. 2015’s still-massive “Lean On,” where the sound really crystallized, puts the pulsing EDM rhythm before the Caribbean stuff, instead of after; “Run Up,” the Nicki Minaj- and PARTYNEXTDOOR-featuring single from earlier this year, almost eschews the crucial brippity-borp breakdown entirely, only to provide a subdued version using synth glissandos at the end of the song. But the basic template is pretty much always there.
No one wants or expects Major Lazer to start making, say, morose post-dubstep or sleek minimal techno, but on Know No Better, a six-track EP surprise-released this morning, the brazenness with which they continue to hammer at the same arrangements of sounds is remarkable. The title track, which arrived with a music video and is positioned as the breakout hit, mines “Lean On” specifically, with Travis Scott, Camilla Cabello, and Quavo subbing in for the Danish singer Mø, who appeared on the original. The breakdown arrives on cue, about a minute into the song and again a minute later, comprised of a high vocal part, chopped up and auto-tuned, just like “Lean On.” Quavo’s verse, which opens with rapping and ad-libs about drop tops, looks to his own group’s recent history for inspiration.
And if “Know No Better” doesn’t hit, don’t worry. There’s also “Particula,” which shares a yearning reverby piano sound with the title track, adding some slick Ned Doheny-via-Calvin Harris yacht rock guitar licks to the mix for good measure. “Particula” is slightly slower, its intro isn’t quite as long, and its hook, sung sweetly by the Nigerian artist Ice Prince, is more of a proper chorus than that of “Know No Better.” But other than that, the tunes are structurally identical. The breakdowns happen in exactly the same places.
Even “Jump,” featuring Busy Signal, the song that sounds the most distinctly different from the rest of the EP, is a pastiche of another kind of Major Lazer single. The vocal sections are fierce dancehall à la the 2013 anthem “Watch Out For This (Bumaye)” (another Busy Signal feature), and the extended instrumental sections harken back to “Pon De Floor” and “Original Don.”
Major Lazer’s catalog is filled with good-to-great music in the same mode in which they’re working here, and on Know No Better, they’ve assembled another commendably diverse roster of vocalists, spanning from the states to Latin America to West Africa. Still, Jamaican music of the 1980s onward remains their most important lodestar. And while the best dancehall artists are capable of wringing manifold new thrills from a sparse and utilitarian set of materials, spinning hit after iridescent hit from the same shared riddims, this EP sees Major Lazer doing something like the bleak inverse: They’ve got access to all the high-def robot sounds and rising new voices that their money and status as American-approved tastemakers can offer, but they keep churning out the same song. Maybe at some point soon they’ll recognize that the magic of these particular tricks is starting to wear out. Or, like the title of the record implies, maybe they don’t know anything better.